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HomeLatest NewsBus issues drag on for Northern Beaches commuters

Bus issues drag on for Northern Beaches commuters

March has seen bus commuters face long lines and extended wait times, with several Manly Observer readers telling us they have simply given up and opted to drive in.

It’s been even worse for commuters in the Frenchs Forest and Belrose area, where driver shortages are even higher and cancellations a daily event.

March sees the return of university students and Tuesday is the most common day for work-from-home staff to return to the office. This peak passenger period and a driver shortage has led to a perfect storm on at least two occasions this month with queues snaking throughout the entire Dee Why Meriton precinct and unworkable delays for some commuters.

The primary provider of local bus services, private operator Keolis Downer, which franchises the operations from NSW Transport, said the issues were caused by a number of drivers calling in sick.

“Regrettably, owing to driver absenteeism we had three B-Line services cancelled between 7am and 8am this morning which would have placed pressure on the Pittwater Rd corridor, including Dee Why,” they said of the March 5 chaos.

“We apologise for any inconvenience this has caused and are making plans to mitigate any impact on the PM peak this evening, with all B-Line services currently rostered to operate,” a spokesperson told Manly Observer.

“Keolis Downer’s staff levels have improved significantly over the past 12 months, and we continue to actively recruit bus drivers.”

Services in Belrose, including school routes, had issues that same morning – and readers tell us most mornings. ComfortDelGro (CDC) the new parent company of Forest Coachlines, run these lines, but claimed that no school bus services were cancelled that day. They’ve forecasted more changes on the way to their timetable.

“CDC NSW has not removed any route service, however, we are operating on an adjusted timetable where trips were removed from routes with higher frequencies. We are reviewing the current timetable and expect to release a new one on 31 March 2024 to deliver improved reliability,” they said in a statement to Manly Observer.

“We apologise to those affected by cancellations and delays and encourage those looking for a career as a bus driver to visit Jobs at CDC NSW for further information.”

What are the issues?

NSW Transport parliamentary secretary, Dr Marjorie O’Neill, with Keolis Downer Northern Beaches Managing Director, Mark Dunlop, at Brookvale Bus Depot.

Who’d drive a bus?

There used to be a bit more of an incentive to work as a bus driver on the Northern Beaches, explains a veteran of the industry on his lunch break at Brookvale depot.

The shifts were longer, the conditions and pay pretty good. Drivers came from the Central Coast. They still do, but not as many as before. With almost all operations privatised (a.k.a. franchised) throughout Sydney and beyond, the pay is pretty much the same across the board.

“Most drivers I know are choosing to work at a depot closer to home, which makes sense,” the driver explained.

“Most drivers I know are choosing to work at a depot closer to home, which makes sense,” the driver explained.

The problem, then, is finding drivers who live close to the Northern Beaches bus depot, where a median house price is $2.5 million and an average three-bedroom house is now well over $1,000 a week to rent.

The driving veteran, Roger,  has been a driver for 27 years. He lives on the Central Coast and says living on the Northern Beaches isn’t an option. Not only for the housing expense, but he owns horses and living in Terrey Hills is well beyond most people’s pay grade, especially a bus driver’s.

He makes it work by staying with his mum at a retirement home in Narrabeen during his on weeks. If he didn’t have that option, he’s not sure how he would make it work.

Roger has been a bus driver for nearly 28 years. He is pictured here (at back) on a lunch break at the Keolis Downer depot at Brookvale.

The plan

The Northern Beaches operations were privatised in 2021 under a model known as “franchising” – keeping the assets in government custody and the operations under private contract.

Drivers who crossed over from State Transit had their conditions maintained, which has been extended by their new bosses, Keolis Downer. But eventually, all drivers will be on a new award.

While recruitment drives are in full swing, there remain multiple pressures working against transport operators’ ability to find enough bus drivers to meet the growing (and resuming) demand on our network remains.

There is clear community frustration over waiting for buses that don’t show, daily cancellations, reduced timetables, a lack of contractual protections for interschool sport transport, and the loss of many smaller ‘ less profitable’ services in the Balgowlah area prior to the contract being signed in 2021.

This contributed to the relatively new government’s announcement of a Public Transport Forum, the first of which was attended by Transport Parliamentary Secretary Marjorie O’Neill (and new Wakehurst MP Michael Regan along with Manly Observer), in late June 2023 at Dee Why RSL.

Before the forum, Dr O’Neill popped into the Brookvale Depot, where she met with the head of Keolis Downer Northern Beaches, Mark Dunlop, and bus drivers who were around the traps. Manly Observer tagged along.

As an editorial note, it was commendable to be given open access, not just to facilities, but to drivers who could speak freely about their experiences.

What arose were concerns over the dwindling number of drivers on hand, and the level of training being provided to the expanding group of new recruits.

This was mid-2023, and the taskforce has made some progress since then. They say its recruitment drive saw a nine per cent increase in applications, and a report released in the last month claims driver vacancies have halved.

The still relatively new Labor government may not have been responsible for the franchising model, but they are not ready to tear up the contracts either. They say they will wait to see what the taskforce recommends come May 2024 and, in the interim, help with bus driver recruitment drive.

In addition, the Keolis team seemed keen to get free public transport back on the table for drivers last July, and by September, this was announced as government policy.

Down to housing?

“Keolis have improved and are adding drivers,” Wakehurst MP Michael Regan, an independent, said, noting that the lines are workable when he catches transport at 7.10am.

While he has observed long lines in Dee Why and Manly Vale from 7.30am, he said they often move quickly. Many of Manly Observer’s readers disagree, saying long lines have forced them to drive to work.

The major problem, the MP said, is in the Forest area (where CDC runs the routes) and he’s asked the government to step in to cut services to Chatswood and redirect them to the city to meet the demand.

He also wants the government to “enforce the contract” as they aren’t attracting drivers. It would be interesting to see if this leads to the route passing hands. Should that pass to Keolis Downer, its need for drivers would be higher still.

Queues on Pittwater Rd for the morning B-line bus to the city are common in March. This from last March, in Dee Why. Photo: Alec Smart

In July last year, bus drivers told us, in confidence, that they weren’t enjoying split shifts, rosters at short notice and the morale wasn’t that great.

A Keolis Downer spokesperson insists the conditions, rates of pay and penalty rates as part of Enterprise Agreement remain the same as when they were with the State Transit Authority – before ‘franchising’. They have also had $2,000 and $3,000 “KD Start and Stay” bonuses to attract new and former drivers to come back and hang around. Meanwhile, Keolis Downer continues to offer a free license upgrade, reimbursement of application costs and a few other perks.

Keolis Downer is currently advertising for bus drivers with Manly Observer, encouraging locals to ‘get behind the wheel’.

As well as on-the-job training and licensing costs, the spokesperson said the job had “attractive remuneration and benefits potentially earning $70K-$90K (full-time average)”.

“Some of our drivers earn up to $120K with overtime and penalties, health and wellbeing programs, including staff discounts and Fitness Passport Memberships for employees and family,” they added.

Keolis Downer’s Chief of Operations and Beaches local, Jay Zmijewski, says they now have just 30 bus driver vacancies left to fill, significantly down from 100 the same time last year.

While Mr Regan says he remains critical of the contract the government signed with Keolis Downer and others, the broader issue is affordable housing for bus drivers.

“At the end of the day, the cost of renting or buying on the Northern Beaches has forced drivers to work closer to home out west,” he said.

“It’s why I’m pushing for over 500 of the 1000 dwellings on the former French Forest High School site to be affordable in perpetuity and available to key workforces.

“If drivers can’t afford to live here, they won’t be able to fix the bus services. And a split four hour on/four hour off/four hour on shift will never work to attract people living outside of the Northern Beaches.

“We as a community need to help address the crisis. Teachers, nurses and ancillary staff, police, firefighters and, yes, bus drivers, are priced out. The bus crisis is the first real flow on impact we are seeing in our day-to-day lives. It’s a visible sign of a much bigger problem.”

“If drivers can’t afford to live here, they won’t be able to fix the bus services”- Michael regan

With aggressive campaigning targeting recruitment of bus drivers to work from all over Sydney and regional surrounds, it may still prove more difficult to attract enough to come as far as the Northern Beaches. Unless they happen to live here already.

A $2,000 bonus is a juicy carrot, but it’s also less than two weeks’ rent.

In Sydney’s living crisis, our bus services are just another impact joining the queue.